Balaam"s Vision of the Church
Let Israel, as gathered within sight of Moab, be regarded as representing the Church of the living God: let Balak, king of Moab, be regarded as representing all the forces which encounter the Church of the living God with suspicion or hostility: let Balaam be regarded as the prophet of the Lord standing between the Church and the kingdoms of heathenism, and declaring the divine purpose, and dwelling in sacred and rapturous eloquence upon the condition, the forces, and the destiny, of the Church of Christ. Such are the conditions which are now before us:—Israel the Church, Balak heathenism and every manner of hostility, Balaam the voice of Heaven, the prophet of God. Such being the picture, what are the doctrines which underlie it and breathe through it and appeal to our confidence and imagination? First of all, the Church is represented as being "blessed." We read,—"And God said unto Balaam, Thou shalt not go with them; thou shalt not curse the people: for they are blessed" ( Numbers 22:12). To repeat that word is best to explain it. Some words refuse to pass into other terms, for they are themselves their best expositors;—blessed is one of those words. We are not taught that Israel was in a state of momentary enjoyment—passing through some transient experience of gladness; but Israel is represented as sealed with a divine benediction: Israel is blessed—not merely to be blessed, or reserved for blessing; but through eternity is blessed—set in sureness in the divine covenant, created and made a people by the divine knowledge and purpose and love. Here is no small contention as between momentary complacency and momentary hostility: we are in the eternal region, we are standing amid the august certainties of divine purpose, recognition and determination. The Church Isaiah, therefore, blessed—sealed, gathered around the Lord, set in his sight,—an inheritance, a possession, a sanctuary. That the Church does not rise to the glory of its election according to the divine purpose has no bearing whatever upon the argument. All things are in process; nothing is yet finished. Is it a temple?—the walls are being put up. Is it a tree?—the tree is yet in process of growing, and we Know nothing yet of its magnitude or its fruitfulness. Is it a character?—time is required, and we must read destiny—not in immediate appearances, but in the divine decree and in the inspired revelation. A man is not in reality what he appears to be at any given moment: man is as to possibility what he is in the divine thought. Until we have seen that thought in clearest realisation, it little becomes us to sneer at the meanest specimen of human nature, or to mock the handiwork of God. Let this stand: that there is a family, a Church, an institution—describe it by any name—which is "blessed";—in other words, there is a spot on the earth on which the divine complacency rests like a Sabbath-light; we may well consider our relation to that place; it would not be unbecoming even the dignity of reason to ask what its own relation is to that sacred and ever-blessed position.
This being the case, the negative seems to become the positive when we read that the Church of the living God is beyond the power of human cursing. Said Balaam,—"How shall I curse, whom God hath not cursed?" That is a great principle. Balaam might use the words of cursing, but there would be no anathema in his impotent speech. The curse of man cannot get within the sanctuary of God. The Church is hidden within the pavilion of the Most High: the Church is beyond "the strife of tongues": the curses are all outside noises—like the wings of night-birds beating against the eternal granite. "No weapon that is formed against thee shall prosper";—the weapon shall be formed, the weapon shall be lifted up, the weapon shall apparently come down; but it shall miss thee, and cut nothing but the vacant air. Unless we have some such confidence as this, we shall be the sport of every rumour, exposed to every wild alarm, without peace: in the whole week there will be no Sabbath day, after the day"s tumult there will be no time of repose: the house will be open to the encroachment of every evil. We must, therefore, stand in great principles, and take refuge in the sanctuary of divine and revealed appointments. You cannot injure the really good man: you may throw many stones at him, but you will never strike him; much speech may be levelled against him, but the speech will be without point. A good man is the Lord"s jewel; a soul in harmony with the Christian purpose is a soul hidden in the security of God"s almightiness. That we do not realise this is to our shame and not to the discredit of the inspired testimony. When a Christian is in alarm, he is doing more injury to the Christian cause than can be done by any outside assailants; when the good man interrupts his prayer by some expression of fear or doubt, he is doing more to invalidate every argument for the sufficiency of prayer than can be done by the most penetrating intellectual criticism or by the most audacious unbelief. Our religion is nothing if it does not make us feel our security and turn that security into a temple of living and daily praise. It still lies, therefore, with the believer to injure his cause, to bring discredit upon God"s temple, and to expose the Eternal Father to human suspicion. Let us beware of this, lest the enemies of God should be found in his own household.
Is there not something in the condition of the Church that might excite—shall we call it?—the envy—the religious envy of the world? Read chapter Numbers 23:10—"Who can count the dust of Jacob, and the number of the fourth part of Israel?" The Church grows upon the attentive vision; at first it does not seem to be what it really Isaiah, but as the prophet looks the little one becomes a thousand and the small nation becomes a great empire, and those who were of little account from a physical point of view rise into immeasurable proportions of force and possibilities of service. The Church is—let us repeat—what God sees it to be: God sees it to be the power of the world, the light to illuminate it, the salt to preserve it, the city to be as a beacon in relation to it. The Lord has said that the Church shall overcome all opposition. The time in which it is about to do this Isaiah, by our reckoning, very long—so long, that our poor patience almost expires and our faith sharpens itself into an almost doubtful inquiry, saying,—O Lord! how long?—the wicked are robust, evil-minded men are many in number, and virtue seems to be cast out upon the street and to be exposed to a very precarious fortune—O Lord! how long? It is a natural question, full of reasonableness from a merely human point of view, and it never can be suppressed except by that increase cf faith which makes our life superior to the death-principle that is in us—that fills us with a sense of already-realised immortality. Balaam saw Israel to be an innumerable host. Numbers played a great part in the imagination of the Eastern mind, and the Lord, touching the imagination of Balak along the only accessible lines, makes Balaam speak about the great host. Why, the dust of it could not be counted; no reckoning could sum up the fourth part of Israel; and as the numbers increased and came down in threatening countless multitudes upon the imagination of Balak, he was staggered by the vision of the majesty of Israel. That is the view we must take of the case. Let God number his Church. He teaches us by all these allusions that numbering is impossible on our part. We do but vex ourselves by taking the statistics of the Church: only God can take them, and he so represents them as to dazzle the imagination—to throw our power of reckoning into absolute despair. From the beginning, he spoke thus about numbers: he would never entrust us with the exact numerical secret; when he told one man how many children he should have, he said,—More than the stars, more than the sands upon the sea-shore,—innumerable. God"s arithmetic is not a pronounceable quantity; it touches the imagination and excites the wonder, until imagination and wonder consent in their intellectual impotence to fall down like white-robed worshippers and say,—Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, thou Father in heaven!
According to Balaam, the Church is named in an unchangeable decree: "God is not a Prayer of Manasseh, that he should lie; neither the son of Prayer of Manasseh, that he should repent: hath he said, and shall he not do it? or hath he spoken, and shall he not make it good?" ( Numbers 23:19). This is not a God that can be changed by temptation or whose decrees can be varied by circumstances. We do not surprise him by our sin. He does not alter the will because the younger son has gone away contrary to his expectation: when he made the will he foresaw the apostasy. There is nothing omitted from the divine reckoning. He saw the sin before he called me his child; he knew every time the arm of rebellion would be lifted and every time the voice of unbelief would challenge the integrity of his promises. The will overrides all these things: the Testator foresaw them, and the covenant was made in view of them. Herein is comfort, but not licence; herein is a great security, but no permission to tempt the living God. The view which the divine eye took of the whole situation was a complete view; reckoning up all sides, all forces, all possibilities and issues, the decree went forth, that out of this human nature, come whence it may—straight from God"s hands, in one form or the other, it must have come—this human nature shall be the temple of the living God, and out of those human eyes shall gleam the fire of divinity. If we believed anything short of this, our testimony would not be worth delivering—at best, it would be but a happy conjecture, or a fanciful possibility, wanting in lines of solidity, and in characteristics of certainty—wanting in the absoluteness which alone can give a steadiness of position to the human will and the destiny of the human career. Were all these covenants, arrangements and promises open to mere criticism of a verbal kind, we should have no inheritance—we should be but beggars to the last, living upon appearances and exhausting the unsubstantial fortune of illusory hopes; but our Christian position Isaiah,—God is unchangeable, the covenant is unalterable, the good man is the accepted of God, and the almightiness of God is pledged to see the good man through river, sea, wilderness, and the battle, being God"s, can only end in one way.
According to Balaam"s vision of the Church, Israel is guiltless and royal. This is proved by chapter Numbers 23:21—"He hath not beheld iniquity in Jacob, neither hath he seen perverseness in Israel: the Lord his God is with him, and the shout of a king is among them."
Herein is the mystery of love. Already we begin to see the meaning of the marvellous expression—"Where sin abounded, grace did much more abound." "He hath not beheld iniquity in Jacob, neither hath he seen perverseness in Israel"—whilst, from the human point of view, he has never seen anything else. The whole history up to this point has been on the part of Israel or Jacob a disclosure of meanness, selfishness, complaining, perfidy, and perverseness. Both the statements are perfectly true. They may not be open to the cheap reconciliation of mere verbal adjustment, but they are strictly in harmony with the great central line which unites and consolidates the universe. God does not judge in great and final senses by the detailed slips, losses, mistakes, misadventures, follies, and sins of his people;—what a life would be God"s eternity could it be vexed by these details! We are lacking in the divine charity which sees the "man" within the "sinner"—which sees behind the iniquity the divine seed. We are lacking in the divine benevolence which distinguishes between the action of the hand—which sometimes does not express the motion of the will—and the inward and set purpose of the sanctified soul. We count ourselves clever if we can trip one another up in discrepancies of speech, in small or great shortcomings,—if we can but record a heavy score against some brother, as to a lapse here and a mistake there, and some evil deed yonder. God does not measure the man or Church according to that standard and method: he sees the purpose, he reads the soul, and he sees that nowhere is there a redder blush of shame for anything evil which the hand has done than in the soul of the man who has been convicted as the trespasser. So there are two views to be taken of the Church—the small view, the magisterial criticism, the estimate which is formed by the ingenuity that is most successful in fault-finding; or the view which is taken by God"s purpose, by divine charity, by eternal election and decree. God"s purpose is to have the uttermost parts of the earth for an inheritance and a possession; and already the earth may be called his:—"The earth is the Lord"s, and the fulness thereof"—not looked at here and now and within given lines—so looked at it is the devil"s earth, it is ripped and seamed by ten thousand times ten thousand graves;—little children"s bones are rotting in it, bad men are building their thrones and palaces upon it. The devil"s hunting-ground is this earth within a narrow or limited point of view; but in the divine purpose, in the great outcome of things, this earth is verdant as the upper paradise, pure as spotless snow,—a sanctuary of the Lord; all lands and languages, all seas, all thrones, all powers, are baptized in the Triune Name, and the whole earth is a worthy annexe of God"s own heaven. Take any other view, and you become at once unsettled, unsteady, depleted of all enrichment arising from confidence and hope and promise. This is the true view, for it is the view given in the Scriptures of God.
Balaam recognises the operation of a miracle in all this. He describes Israel as a supreme miracle of God. He says,—"... according to this time it shall be said of Jacob and of Israel, What hath God wrought!" ( Numbers 23:23). Thus the Church becomes the uppermost miracle. From the first it did not seem such workmanship was possible: the material was rough, the conditions were impracticable,—everything seemed to be as different as possible from the grace and purpose of Heaven; but years passed on, and the generations and the ages, and still the mighty Worker continued with patient love to carry forward his purpose, and already chaos seems to be taking shape, already some notes harmonious are heard through all the harsh discord, already there is the outlining of a horizon radiant with the silver of rising day, already God seems to be subduing, overruling, controlling, and establishing things; and looking further on the prophet says,—"According to this time it shall be said of Jacob and of Israel, What hath God wrought!"—how wondrous the transformation; how sublime the moral majesty; how gracious the complete deliverance! That, again, is our standing ground. "Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, saith the Lord." It is not within our little ability to establish the divine kingdom upon the earth; but God will bring in an everlasting kingdom: he "will overturn, overturn, overturn,... until he come whose right it is." So we wait on in patience—patience often sorely troubled, patience that is vexed by many a question from the hostile side: men say,—"Where is the promise of his coming? for since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of the creation"—not seeing the invisible Hand, not having that sharp vision which perceives the rectification of lines so fibrous and so delicate, not knowing that God"s transformation is being worked from the interior; that it is not a case of external painting but a case of spiritual regeneration, and according to the majesty of the subject within whose life this mystery is to be accomplished is the time which even God requires for the outworking and consummation of his miracle.
Then Balaam paints a picture—such a picture as would appeal to the Eastern imagination. He compares Jacob and Israel to the most beautiful of all spectacles; he says,—"How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob, and thy tabernacles, O Israel! As the valleys are they spread forth, as gardens by the river"s side, as the trees of lign aloes which the Lord hath planted, and as cedar trees beside the waters. He shall pour the water out of his buckets, and his seed shall be in many waters, and his king shall be higher than Agag, and his kingdom shall be exalted" ( Numbers 24:5-7). Why speak so much about streams and rivers and waters?—because nothing appealed so vividly to the Oriental imagination. To have plenty of water was to be rich in the days of Balaam and in the country of Balak. So Balaam, taught by the Lord to speak the music of truth and of heaven, speaks of Jacob and Israel as being "valleys" where the water rolled, "as gardens by the river"s side, as the trees of lign aloes... and as cedar trees beside the waters." In other parts of the Old Testament those same cedar trees are spoken of with the rapture of poetry:—they put out their dark roots towards the river, they suck up the streams, and they report the success of the root in the far-spreading branches which seem to have lifted themselves up to the very clouds of heaven. Every country has its own standards of success, its own signs of prosperity, its own symbols which most vividly appeal to the imagination of the inhabitants; and water constituted the great object of admiration and of thankfulness in the Eastern mind. And then the King that was coming was to be "higher than Agag" ( Numbers 22:7). The word "Agag" means "high"; the word "Agag" is the name of the Amalekite kings, as "Pharaoh" was the name of the kings of Egypt, and "Abimelech" the name of the kings of the Philistines; so Agag is not any one personal king but the you or I of the Amalekite nation; and when Balak and his hosts looked upon their mighty Agag, Balaam said,—He is a child compared with the coming King—a mere infant of days compared with the crowned One of Jacob; when He comes whose right it is to reign, all other kings and princes will acknowledge his right, and fall down before him, and pay their crowns as tribute to his majesty.
This, then, is the position of the Church of Christ. We believe a great future is in store for the Church. Were we to look at the Church within given lines, we should say,—Great is its poverty, very questionable its intellectual standpoint; a very troubled community is the Church—vexing itself by divers theologies and conceptions and theories and speculations. But we must not look at the question in that way. Call for the Lord"s prophet: let "the man whose eyes are open" be called to stand on the hills of Moab, and his speech will be:—
Almighty God, the way to thee is a broad way. We may come boldly to a throne of grace. The access which thy Son has wrought out for us is a great access. We will approach thee by the way which he has marked out. So we advance without fear, and can even venture to lift up our eyes unto heaven. At the very moment when we smite upon our breast, we have confidence in God, through our Lord Jesus Christ. We think we could now bear to look upon the shaded glory of the Lord of hosts. We have been with Jesus, and have learned of him. At first we were afraid of the great fire, saying, Behold, it burns like an oven, and is hot as the wrath of justice. But now we know thee. God is love. Thou dost wait to be gracious, thou dost live for thy creation. We feel as if thou thyself wert praying for us in the very act of answering our petition. Thou dost make our prayer for us; it is the inditing of thy Holy Spirit in the heart. It is a speech we never invented, but which we receive and adopt as the good gift of God, relieving our heart as it does of the pressure of its pain and expressing happily all the desire of its necessity. Thou dost teach us how to pray. Thou wouldest have us praying always and never faint. Help us, then, to pray without ceasing, as we live without ceasing. We live whilst we sleep, we live in our unconsciousness; the life still keeps beating on ready for the morning of expectation and service and sacrifice. So may we pray in our very unconsciousness—yea, when we do not know we are praying in form and in set petition. May our life so acquire the sacred habit of the upward look and the heavenly expectation that without a word we may mightily cry unto the Father-Heart. We bless thee that we have experience of this kind. We are ashamed of our words: they are wings that cannot fly far; our souls must of themselves, in all the speechlessness of enraptured love, seek thee, find thee, and hold long and sweet communion with thee. We would live and move and have our being in God. This prayer thou dost never deny. Thou dost keep wealth from us, and prosperity, and renown, and riches, and honour, and ease; these things thou dost drive away with a sharp wind; but never didst thou say No to the soul that longed to be purer, to the heart that desired to be cleansed. May we find great answers to our petitions. They are addressed to thee in the appointed way, they are sealed with the name of Christ; every syllable is sprinkled with the blood of reconciliation; we say nothing out of our own name, or because of our own invention; we speak the Lord"s prayer in the Lord"s name, and we are sure of the Lord"s answer. We cannot tell thee what thou dost not know; yet thou dost love to hear us talk; thou delightest in the speech of man; there is something in it which we ourselves cannot hear; thou art carried back to thine own eternity. Even in our poor attempts to speak thou hearest a music which no other ear can detect in the utterances of man. What is that music? Is it a cry of pain? Is it the note of a voice of one who is lost in a wild night and cannot tell the east from the west, or where the sweet home lies warm with hospitable welcomes? Thou knowest there is divinity in it—a strange pulsing of the eternal music. When we speak thus to thee, in the name of Jesus, our music becomes a mighty prayer, and thine answer encompasses the heavens like a cloud too rich with blessing for the very heavens to contain. Lead us on. We do not know where the grave Isaiah, nor do we care. It may be one foot off, or many a mile away, hidden among the years that are yet to be numbered by tens and twenties. Whether it is already dug, or is not to be dug for many a day, what care we? Being in Christ we cannot die; rooted in the Life Eternal, death can but touch the outer frame. We ourselves are already in heaven. Amen.
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Numbers 24". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. https://www.studylight.org/
Second Sunday after Epiphany